Litchfield Jazz Festival
August 1-3, 2008
No doubt that Litchfield Hills in northwest Connecticut is some of the prettiest terrain within a two- hour drive of Manhattan. The region attracts all sorts of visitorsantique buyers, wine tasters, history buffs and, for more than a decade, jazz fans.
The Litchfield Jazz Festival, two days and three nights of music set against the pastoral backdrop of the Goshen Fairgrounds, draws thousands of attendees each year and boasts an impressive schedule of jazz headliners, notables and up-and-comers. In its inaugural year of 1996, for example, the roster included trumpeter Terence Blanchard, Ahmad Jamal, a virtually unknown Diana Krall, bassists Rufus Reid and Christian McBride. In subsequent years the bill has expanded but the Festival is more than a mere assemblage of celebrity talent.
The Festival's sponsor, a nonprofit organization called Litchfield Performing Arts, also runs the Litchfield Jazz Camp for the month of July each summer. The Jazz Camp, under the guidance of saxophonist/composer Don Braden, this year offered classes to an impressive 530+ students from around the US, 25% of them with the financial support of the Connecticut State Department of Education. Several of the Festival's more established performers are either former students or teach at the Camp, giving the current students the kind of instruction and exposure that most would be hard pressed to find elsewhere.
The Camp experience culminates in the Festival and this year several former students who have gone on to work as sidemen with the likes of Herbie Hancock and Pat Metheny returned to Litchfieldbut on the stage this time, with headliners Paquito D'Rivera, Kenny Werner and Cyrus Chestnut. One current student, Dakota Austin, even got to solo on "Take Five" with Dave Brubeck himself during the composer's Saturday night concert. (The 12-year-old Austin didn't meet the Camp's minimum age requirement of 13 years, but his precocious playing so impressed program director Vita Muir that she waived the requirement in his case. The Camp doesn't hold auditions: He was practicing in the background when his mother called to inquire about the Camp.)
So while the Festival is a pleasurable weekend away from the city and a relaxed way to hear many of today's jazz stars live, it's also a place to witness a handoff of the torch those stars carry.
The Festival launched with an evening of firsts: Cuban saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera and the Zaccai Curtis Trio (pianist Zaccai Curtis, bassist Luques Curtis and percussionist/drummer Richie Barshay, all three of whom are Camp alumni) played an early concert on the main stage, featuring a new composition by D'Rivera commissioned specifically for the Festival. Next, in a quick change of mood and material, television and stage luminary Bebe Neuwirth presented her new cabaret program, Stories With Piano, a montage of theater and pop songs that debuted at Feinstein's. This cabaret is Neuwirth's first, and Litchfield is her first jazz festival.
The next day's 10-hour program opened with a downpour that left the lawn seating a bit damp and delayed the proceedings only slightly. Despite the wetness, dynamic drummer and bandleader Winard Harper led the day's performances with his sextet, a tight group featuring two horns, piano, bass, and African percussion. Then the big-voiced, well-schooled singer Nicole Zuraitis followed with selections from her new CD, fronting the same trio of musicians that D'Rivera had worked with the evening before.
By the time the grass had dried the Kenny Werner Trio, third up, had finished a set of originals and standards, with Werner, always an incisive player, joking lightly with the audience in between tunes. In the short break while the Wayne Shorter Tribute Big Band set up on the Main Stage, attendees could ply Paquito D'Rivera and Dave Brubeck with questions during an informal interview at the other end of the Fairgrounds before hurrying back to take in trumpeter David Weiss' innovative turn on Shorter's music.
At 7 P.M. the Dave Brubeck Quartet filled the sweet spot on the Festival's program, improvising on well- known tunes like "Over The Rainbow" to the now-crowded Fairgrounds as the sky deepened toward sunset. Brubeck could have closed the evening, so definitive was the Quartet's performance, but one more group remained on the day's billing: trombonist Conrad Herwig's seven-man band, which re-interpreted the compositions of Miles Davis and John Coltrane with a Latin feel, each tune a vibrant and compelling take on these masters' works.
Baritone saxophonist Claire Daly is a gracious and entertaining performerand a deeply talented horn player. She and her Rah Rah Band introduced the last day of the Festival, a high-energy kickoff to the third day of consummate musicianship. Peter Madsen, an innovative and intelligent pianist/composer, next led his trio through a set of driving, eclectic numbers, followed by Jimmy Greene, a young saxophonist with serious chops and an equally serious quartet. A keen double-header finished out the Festival: the Cyrus Chestnut Trio, featuring the leader's exquisite soloing on piano, and vocalist/guitarist John Pizzarelli, performing a fully orchestrated Sinatra tribute. As the sun set that Sunday, Litchfield Hills was radiant in the sun, the storm clouds having passed. It was a good day for a drive. And a great weekend for jazz.